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Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila at the Royal Stockholm Opera: (Premiere) Soloists,  The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Gregor Bühl 13.9.2008  (GF)


Lighting: Guy Simard
Sets and Costumes: André Barbe
Direction and Choreography: Renaud Doucet


Dalila – Anna Larsson
Samson – Richard Decker
High Priest of Dagon – David Bizic
Abimelek – Sten Wahlund
An old Hebrew – Michael Schmiedberger
A Messenger – Anders Blom
First Philistine – Olof Lilja
Second Philistine – Mattias Milder

Anna Larsson as Dalila

There had been a great deal of publicity around this new production – the previous one was premiered in 1921 (!) and ran until 1956 – focusing on its politicized concept with the ongoing Middle East conflict between Israel and Palestine and the addition of a scene that clarifies Dalila’s irreconcilable hatred against the Hebrews. When the fore-curtain rises five minutes before the performance, the audience is exposed to a facsimile of the front page of The Palestine Post crying out in extra bold type STATE OF ISRAEL IS BORN. This was in 1946. The opera then starts with a pantomime scene where automobile is blown into pieces in a terrorist attack and among the casualties is Dalila’s little son, who was peacefully playing football with some pals. Another newspaper front page is shown, reporting on Red Cross and UN mediator Folke Bernadotte being killed. The staging here may lead onlookers to believe that he was killed in the same way, which isn’t quite correct. He was in that car all right, but he and his aide-de-camp were shot dead with a sub-machine-gun while sitting in the car. I mention this because this production makes claims to be at least semi-documentary, showing film footage from the Six-Day War in 1967, photos of prominent people killed during the sixty years of hostilities and other references to historical facts.

The production team Doucet and Barbe are very explicit when they state that they don’t take a stand in the Middle East conflict. ‘Neither of us is Jewish, neither is Palestine. We have friends in both camps. We listen and understand the arguments of both sides.’ Where they seem to take a stand is in the attitude towards the UN at the outset of the conflict. A British UN official in light blue uniform is very compliant towards the Philistine leader Abimelek but generally their standpoint is that art poses questions but doesn’t give the answers. In this respect they are at the opposite pole from Opera Spanga, a Dutch opera company, producing also opera films. In their extremely realistic and truly engaging Samson et Dalila that I reviewed on DVD just a few months ago the High Priest of Dagon, ideologist of the oppressors, is a speaking likeness of Moshe Dayan, the former Israeli military leader with his characteristic black patch over one eye. The images of that film have etched themselves indelibly onto my retina. I described it then as ‘possibly the most cruel, brutal and cynical opera production made.’
(See full review). Filmed partly outdoors, hyper-realistically, in present day time the Opera Spanga production could find dramaturgical solutions that are not available to a team working on a stage.

Richard Decker as Samson

Barbe and Doucet have chosen to stylize the sets and they work mostly very well. The action comes to the fore and the only recurring utensil is a multi-functional thick red rope which in the last scene of the opera holds together the temple of Dagon and which finally breaks when Samson regains his supernatural powers and makes the temple collapse, killing himself as well as his foes. Whether the numerous references to historical facts is an asset or not is an open question. I believe that most opera-goers are intelligent enough to realize the parallel between Old Testament Gaza and the present day. Still I think the first two acts worked well – it was in the third act that doubts began to arise. The Bacchanale became a kind of demonstration of military power with children soldiers and dancers in white – white, the colour of peace, but was this what it symbolized? And when ‘Dagon TV’ was brought in with the High Priest and Dalila as dual hosts the performance came very close to parody. Eavesdropping to conversations during the intervals and after the performance I could register very mixed reactions to the productions and there were even occasional boos directed to the production team during the curtain calls.

Regarding the musical side of the production, agreement should be more or less unanimous. As I also noted in my review of the Opera Spanga DVD it is remarkable how well Saint-Saëns’s 19th century oratorio idiom lends itself to the dramatically and politically charged subtexts and the choral scenes, which are so central to this score, and which were given great impact, vocally as well as visually. Saint-Saëns has so often been castigated for writing well constructed and agreeable -but in the last resort rather empty -  music and when it comes to this particular work I think he is unfairly underrated. After the successful Ring cycle,  conductor Gregor Bühl has surely become a force to reckon with at the Royal Opera and he balanced the somewhat disparaging elements of oratorio and operatic style in the score very well..

Having admired Anna Larsson greatly for her Erda in the Ring,  it was a pleasure to encounter her in something even meatier. Dalila should be a dream role for a good mezzo-soprano and Anna Larsson’s dark timbre, more contralto than mezzo, seemed cut out for it. Hers was not the animal chesty sorceress who seduced Samson with overwhelming voluptuousness; she was on the contrary the most nuanced and restrained Dalila I can remember hearing anywhere and only the more efficient for that reason. Visually she appeared as noble and unimpeachable with her tall slim figure. American Richard Decker has been a leading Heldentenor for quite some time and his achievement in this arduous role was impressive. He still has that enviable steely and penetrating upper register, reminiscent of legendary Wagner hero Set Svanholm half a century ago. At full throttle he has few superiors today but in the middle register and when singing at less than forte he could sound a bit on the dry side, even though his big aria at the beginning of Act III was beautifully restrained and deeply felt.

The most sensational member of the cast however was Belgrade born but today resident in Israel David Bizic as the High Priest of Dagon. Here was a fairly young bass-baritone with a superb voice, voluminous, wide-ranging and fully equalized from bottom to top. The role is somewhat one-dimensional but he managed to invest it with a great deal of subtlety as well. He seems to be cut out for great things. Michael Schmiedberger did what was possible as the Old Hebrew and veteran Sten Wahlund as Abimelek, in wide caftan and enormous turban, has retained his booming bass but by now the voice is rather frayed in the upper regions.

A second team with Maria Streijffert, Lars Cleveman and Johan Edholm as Dalila, Samson and the High Priest will alternate with the trio of the premiere and the production will run until 26 February.

Göran Forsling

Pictures ©
Alexander Kenney

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